15. How did you find…

15. How did you find your agent?

Sadly, I'm guessing your real question is 'how do I find an agent,' and my experience isn't going to be much help to you. I'll try to answer that question a little later, though, based on talking to authors and agents and on my understanding of the field.

But to answer this one, when I was working on Aqua Erotica, back in 2000, Bob Mecoy was my editor at Random House/Crown. He really liked the story I wrote for that book, "Seven Cups of Water," and mentioned that he was planning on moving to full-time agenting, and that if I ever wrote a book, I should give him a call, that he'd be interested in looking at it. So, once I had gotten far enough along in the book (four years later), I looked him up on the web and sent him an e-mail. He read Bodies in Motion, he liked it, and he signed me up. I was very lucky.

16. Can you introduce me to your agent?

I'm afraid that unless I already know you and know I like your work, I really can't -- it wouldn't be fair to Bob. But you're welcome to try writing to him if you like -- Bob's fairly easy to find online. But first, read the next question and response.
17. So how should I find an agent?

This is a multi-step process. Take a deep breath, and begin.

  1. Draft a query letter that introduces you and your work. It should be a 'selling document', as they say -- include a paragraph or two on your credentials, and a paragraph or two on your book (focus on one book -- if you have others, mention them briefly).

    When talking about yourself, think about how you're pitching yourself. I tend to pitch myself as a Sri Lankan-American woman who writes about sex -- that hits a couple interesting areas. If you're a Bangladeshi immigrant who used to be a freedom fighter (to name a writer friend of mine), or a woman raised LDS (tell them that means Mormon, just in case) now questioning the boundaries of her faith, or really anything else that can be pitched together with your book, then it's up to you whether you want to make that part of your pitch. If you're willing, it won't hurt your chances, and will probably help.

    It also won't hurt to talk about your work in something a little like marketing-speak. I.e., for my book, I'd describe it as something like this (this is actually some of the marketing copy my editor wrote for my book, but it's the right kind of thing -- sorry if it seems a bit pompous):

    "Like Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, Bodies in Motion transports us to Sri Lanka, a country steeped in centuries of tradition but faced with the modernization of social mores and customs. In a land of arranged marriages and entrenched roles, particularly for women, these stories limn the tug-of-war between generations and gender as family members make their own choices about their futures, sometimes bringing them to America, and sometimes taking them back to their island home. In a distillation of intimate moments, the stories chronicle the loves, ambitions, spiritual and sexual quests of the members of each family as they search for meaning to their lives and a place to call home."

    This tells the agent what kind of book this is, and gives them a sense of whom the audience might be. Your goal is to intrigue him, to excite him, to make him see the possibilities for a broad and passsionate readership for your book.

    Take your time with this, show it to some writer friends, get feedback and revise it. Do it right. Be sure to proofread the letter carefully! This is your public face, and an error here can really put off an agent!

  2. Think about what books are out there that are similar to yours. Check their acknowledgements (or author web pages) to see if you can figure out who the author's agent is. Google their agent, get the contact info, see if they're currently open to new clients. I haven't been through this process, but I'm told that having a query out to 10-15 agents is fairly standard. It shouldn't take you more than a few hours and the net to put together that list.

  3. Check the agent pages and see what they each, individually, want. They may ask for just a query letter, or a query letter plus outline, or query letter, outline, and first three chatpers (up to 15,000 words or so). Send them all out.

  4. If an agent says she's interested - wait. Think it over. Research her on the net. Have at least one long phone conversation with her before you sign. Be sure she understands your book, and can talk about it articulately. You're going to be working with your agent very closely; if you aren't comfortable with her, you'll be better off going with someone else. And remember that you can always switch agents later (though if that agent sells your book, she keeps getting 15% on that book forever, even if you switch agents later).

  5. If an agent isn't interested, try not to take it too hard. You want an agent who loves your work -- if he's only lukewarm about it, he isn't going to do a good job for you. Try to keep in mind that your agent actually works for you -- it can be really easy for writers to feel powerless in this process, but in the end, you hold all the cards. You're the one actually writing the wonderful books. What you need is an agent who is smart and knowledgeable about publishing, articulate and passionate about you and your work. Finding just any old agent is actually surprisingly easy -- finding the right one may take a couple tries.

    Good luck!

18. How long did it take to sell Bodies in Motion?

It depends on how you count. If you start with when I first wrote one of the stories in Bodies in Motion, well, "Season of Marriage," a story which isn't actually in the collection but which served as a starting point for it, I wrote in 1993, I think, so about eleven years.

If you start with when I first got the idea to write a linked story, that would be "Minal in Winter," which I wrote in 1998, during my MFA, so that would be about six years.

If you start with when I first started consciously developing the linked stories into a book, that would be at the beginning of my Ph.D., when I took post-colonial literature and did an independent study in Sri Lankan history, along with a whole mess of writing workshops, in 2000. So that would be four years.

If you start with when I talked Bob into being my agent, that was late March 2004, and the book sold in late May 2005, so about three months. We spent a few months talking about the book, going back and forth, doing revisions, before he sent it out.

And if you start with when he actually sent it out -- three weeks, start to finish, just about. The first editor he showed it to liked it, but wasn't willing to take on a collection; she asked to see a novel, should I write one later. The second editor liked it, asked if I had a novel. Bob asked me, I hastily collected some notes and short stories towards a novel that I'd been pondering, off and on, and sent them along. He sent them on to her, and in late May 2004, Marjorie Braman at HarperCollins offered to buy both books, Bodies in Motion and The Arrangement, making me very, very happy.

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